A NEARBY galaxy is hurtling towards the Milky Way on a collision course that could fling our solar system into interstellar space, say researchers from a North-East university.

Astrophysics from Durham University say the collision between the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) could happen in about two billion years’ time, wreaking havoc and causing a dormant black hole to wake up.

Lead author Dr Marius Cautun, a postdoctoral fellow in Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said: “While two billion years is an extremely long time compared to a human lifetime, it is a very short time on cosmic timescales.

“The destruction of the LMC, as it is devoured by the Milky Way, will wreak havoc with our galaxy, waking up the black hole that lives at its centre and turning our galaxy into an ‘active galactic nucleus’ or quasar.

The Whirlpool Galaxy and companion galaxy M51b

“This phenomenon will generate powerful jets of high energy radiation emanating from just outside the black hole. While this will not affect our solar system, there is a small chance that we might not escape unscathed from the collision between the two galaxies which could knock us out of the Milky Way and into interstellar space.”

The LMC is the brightest satellite galaxy of the Milky Way and only entered our neighbourhood about 1.5 billion years ago. It sits about 163,000 light years from the Milky Way.

Until recently astronomers thought that it would either orbit the Milky Way for many billions of years, or, as it moves so fast, escape from its gravitational pull.

However, recent measurements indicate that the LMC has nearly twice as much dark matter than previously thought and researches say it is rapidly losing energy and is doomed to collide with our galaxy.

The research team, led by scientists at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology working with the University of Helsinki, in Finland, used the EAGLE galaxy formation supercomputer simulation to predict the collision.

The collision between the LMC and the Milky Way could be spectacular, the researchers say.

Co-author Professor Carlos Frenk, director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology, said: “Beautiful as it is, our universe is constantly evolving, often through violent events like the forthcoming collision with the LMC.

“Barring any disasters, like a major disturbance to the solar system, our descendants, if any, are in for a treat: a spectacular display of cosmic fireworks as the newly awakened supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy reacts by emitting jets of extremely bright energetic radiation.”

According to the researchers, the merger of the two galaxies could be long overdue in cosmic terms.

Dr Alis Deason, also from the institute, said: “We think that up to now our galaxy has had only a few mergers with very low mass galaxies.

“This represents very slim pickings when compared to nearby galaxies of the same size as the Milky Way. For example, our nearest neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy, devoured galaxies weighing nearly 30 times more than those consumed by the Milky Way.

“Therefore, the collision with the LMC is long overdue and it is needed to make our galaxy typical.”

The research was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the European Research Council, the Royal Society and the Academy of Finland.

The findings are published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.